Impassibility as Joyful, Transcendent Love: David Bentley Hart

trinityThough the theologian must affirm that God is by nature beyond every pathos—in the purely technical sense of a change or modification of his nature or essence, passively received ab extra—this is not merely to say that he is impervious to external shock. If it were, it would mean only that he enjoys to a perfect degree the same affective poverty as a granite escarpment. He would not really be beyond suffering at all, but simply incapable of it; to call him impassible would be then to say no more than that, in the order of the mutable, he is immutable; or that, in the order of the contingent, he is rescued from contingency simply by virtue of being that force that is supreme among all other forces. This would, in a very real sense, place God in rivalry to all finite things, though a rivalry that—through the sheer mathematics of omnipotence—he has already won. But this is folly. Divine apatheia is not merely the opposite of possibility; it is God’s transcendence of the very distinction between responsive and unresponsive, between receptivity and resistance. It is the Trinity’s infinite fullness of perfected love, which gives all and receives all in a single movement, and which does not require the supplement of any external force in order to know and to love creation in its uttermost depths. Whereas we—finite, composite, and changing beings that we are—cannot know, love, or act save through a relation to that which affects us and which we affect, God’s impassibility is the infinitely active and eternally prior love in which our experience of love—in both its active and its passive dimensions—lives, moves, and has its being. God’s apatheia is his perfect liberty to be present in both our passions and our actions, but in either case as a free, creative, and pure act.

David Bentley Hart, “Impassibility as Transcendence: On the Infinite Innocence of God.” in Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering ed. James Keating and Thomas Joseph White (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009), 300-301.

To speak of divine “excess” I should add, is simply another way of speaking of God’s apatheia; in either case, I mean the utter fullness of God’s joy, the perfect boundlessness of his love, glory, beauty, wisdom, and being, his everlasting immunity to every limitation, finite determination, force of change, peril, sorrow, or need, the trinitarian plenitude of the essential “venture”—the Father’s manifestation and love of is goodness in the Son and Spirit—-of the divine life; and apart from the unambiguous affirmation of just this classical definition of the divine nature—and most particularly an affirmation of the impassibility of the divine nature of the incarnate Word—no theological sense can be made of the language of Christ’s sacrifice that does not, on the one hand make of Christian belief a philosophically incoherent farrago of myth and sentimentality and, on the other, implicate the Christian God in evil….I want to revisit the….absolute centrality of the doctrine of apatheia to Christology, and so to the Christian understanding of Christ’s death on the cross. It is well to remember, after all, that in Christian tradition the teaching of divine impassibility is not simply apophatic, a limit placed upon our language, a pious refusal to attempt trespass upon God’s majesty in his light inaccessible, but is in fact very much part of the ground of Christian hope, central to the positive message of the evangel, not simple an austere negation of thought but a real promise of joy in God. God’s apatheia is that infinite refuge from all violence and suffering that is the heart’s rest, the deathless glory for which creation was shaped in the beginning as its tabernacle, which in Christ has been joined visibly to our nature, and which will achieve its perfect indwelling in creation in the final divinization of all the heirs of glory and the transfiguration of the cosmos. It is also well to remember that, for Christian thought, divine impassibility is the effect of the fullness of trinitarian charity, rather than a purely negative tribute logically implied by the thought of divine simplicity and bodilessness, and so is properly synonymous with “infinite love”–for love, even for creatures, is not primordially a reaction, but the possibility of every action; the act that makes all else actual; it is purely positive, sufficient in itself, without the need of any galvanism of the negative to be fully active, vital, creative.”

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2003), 354-355.

The greatest problems with [a mutable, changing God as an approach] to trinitarian theology are as much moral as metaphysical, for once the interval of analogy between the immanent and the economic Trinities (between God in himself and God with the world) has been collapsed into simple identity, certain very unsettling conclusions will become inevitable. Moltmann and Jüngel both, for all their differences, attempt to avoid depicting God, in his history of becoming, as merely the passive creature of his creatures: freely, they insist, he chooses his course. But this idea of God as a finite subject writ large, who elects himself as a project of self-discovery, only compounds the problem; in place of the metaphysically necessary “God” of the [Hegelian] system, this sort of language only gives us an anthropomorphic myth, a God whose will enjoys a certain indeterminate priority over his essence, in whom possibility exceeds actuality, who is therefore composite, ontic, voluntaristic…and obviously non-existent. More to the point, as many of the fathers would have argued, a God who can by nature experience finite affects and so be determined by the is a God whose identity is established through commerce with evil; if the nature of God’s love can be in any sense positively shaped by sin, suffering, and death, then sin, suffering, and death will always be in some sense features of who He is. Among other things this means that evil must enjoy a certain independent authenticity, a reality with which God must come to grips, and God’s love must–if it requires the negative pathos of history to bring it into fruition–be inherently deficient, and in itself a fundamentally reactive reality. Goodness then requires evil to be good; love must be goaded into being by pain. In brief, a God who can, in his nature as God, suffer, cannot be the God who is love, even if at the end of the day he should prove to be loving, or the God who is simply good, or who is the wellspring of being and life. He like us is in an accommodation between death and life.

David Bentley Hart, “No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility.” Pro Ecclesia vol.11 no.2 (2002): 191.

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